IN DEPTH


Coverage from the 29th summer Olympics

Old Gu says he is over 70 but he still feels like it is his duty to be a security volunteer.

"I am very happy to be doing this," he tells me proudly, his eyes cloudy with cataracts.

"I'm looking out for traffic problems, security problems. We want the Olympics to be very, very safe for everyone."

Gu, who used to direct traffic before he retired 10 years ago, shares responsibilities with his neighbours, working for just a couple of hours every few days.

Best face

Chinese authorities are determined the Olympics will pass without a hitch
"If I feel tired, when it gets hot in the afternoon, I can go lie down and rest," he says.

This army of citizen police, some 290,000 strong according to state media, work alongside the 400,000 Olympic volunteers who are the smiling face of the Beijing games.

The volunteers, who work four-hour shifts a couple of times a week, are kitted out in bright blue Olympic t-shirts, baseball caps and matching bum bags.

They are spread out around the city at 550 booths at Olympic venues and tourist sites proffering tourist advice, offering coloured pens for people to scrawl Olympic wishes - one booth even has a bathroom scales to check your body weight.

Many can also speak simple English and have some first aid skills – all part of Beijing's efforts to present its best face for the games.

For months now it has been running campaigns to improve manners by handing out "etiquette manuals," imploring locals not to spit or swear but to smile in public.

While many of the Olympic volunteers are indeed very friendly, welcoming and helpful, they have clearly been told to treat journalists with suspicion.

Many volunteers clamped up when asked for an interview, with several saying it was "a rule" that they could not talk to reporters.

'Excited'

Security volunteers are seen as the first line of defence
Volunteers on Guozijian Lane near the main Tibetan Lama temple in the centre of the city, though, were happy to talk.

The group leader, 22-year-old Zhang Jun, works for the local government. Perching her tiny frame on a blue plastic stool she talks about why she was eager to volunteer.

"As soon as I heard they were looking for Olympic volunteers I went online to apply to be one," she said.

"People are coming from all over the world to see our Beijing games. I am so very excited. You know we are the first developing country to hold the Olympics."

The group, all in their 20s, appear relaxed and confident. They say they have no concerns about Olympic security and had not been given any training on how to field difficult questions on Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, although they had learned some emergency first aid and boned up on Olympic facts for the job.

"Our relationship with Taiwan is now recently very good so we are not worried about this anymore," says a 26-year-old male volunteer, also a government worker, who would only give his English name, Sean.

"Also most Tibetans are peaceful. What happened in March was just because of a few people," he says, referring to bloody anti-government riots in Lhasa earlier this year.

Confident

Volunteers have been carefully trained to present the best face of Beijing
"We are not worried about any trouble from Tibetans," Sean says, adding that he has no doubts over the government's ability to ensure the games pass without a hitch.

"We are confident that our government will manage security."

He may well be right.

Across Beijing in the run-up to the games, police presence has been noticeably ramped up. As he speaks a police car cruises slowly by, while other vans, their windows darkened, are parked about 100m down the road.

Some foreign media have cast the volunteer programmes in a somewhat sinister light - the security volunteers are busybodies or neighbourhood spies, while those who assist tourists lack genuine volunteer spirit and are rigidly controlled by the government, say some.

But after talking to several dozen volunteers, the overwhelming impression is that they are genuinely excited and proud of China's hosting of the games and want to do their bit to make it safer and more efficiently run.

For the retired security force, being a volunteer at the very least gives them a t-shirt they can keep and a sense of purpose.

The volunteer programmes appear to be running much more effectively than the city's efforts to encourage locals to be more "civilised".

At the Guozijian stand, as volunteers snack on ice-cream and answer questions about the nearest subway stop, an Olympic security volunteer, who is scanning the street with his caged mynah bird next to this feet, leans over, growls throatily as he clears his lungs, and hocks out the contents at his feet.

The young volunteers grin sheepishly.